Tag Archives: baptism

Inconceivable! Baptism & the “Fellowship of Christ’s Suffering”

inconceivableI am convinced that we take the wonder and peculiarity of the Christian story for granted.  Our ancient forebears, not weighed down with sappy sentimentality or rationalistic reductionism, knew better.  I came across the following quote by St. Cyril of Jerusalem while researching a sermon and I thought it was too good not to share.  This is from his catechetical lectures on the sacraments:

“O strange and inconceivable thing! We did not really die, we were not really buried, we were not really crucified and raised again; but our imitation was in a figure, and our salvation in reality. Christ was actually crucified, and actually buried, and truly rose again; and all these things He has freely bestowed upon us, that we, sharing His sufferings by imitation, might gain salvation in reality. O surpassing loving-kindness! Christ received nails in His undefiled hands and feet, and suffered anguish; while on me without pain or toil by the fellowship of His suffering He freely bestows salvation.”

St. Cyril contrasts the visceral reality of the cross and resurrection experienced by Christ with that which is symbolized and beautifully enacted in baptism.  What is inconceivable – if you’ll pardon the Princess Bride reference – is that all that Christ won in his conquest of death by death is ours without the torment he willingly embraced.  Through the confession of the true faith and baptism in the Triune name, we come to know “the fellowship of His suffering” and salvation is bestowed as a free gift.

Let us never lose sight of the strangeness of the gospel, and how – inconceivably – God has condescended to us in Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit for our redemption.

What does it look like to share in “the fellowship” of Christ’s suffering? How does your baptism inform your daily walk with God? Leave a comment or question below!

Searching for Substance: Rachel Held Evans’ Decades-Old Prescription for Reaching Millennials

Webber saw this attraction 30 years ago.
Webber saw this attraction 30 years ago.

Everything old is new again.  It’s painful to watch a well-worn thesis go viral 30 years late and with someone else’s name attached.  Many folks have been talking about this self-aggrandizing piece by famous I-used-to-be-evangelical-but-now-I’m-enlightened blogger Rachel Held Evans (henceforth RHE).  Aside from seeing it all over Facebook and Twitter, I have unchurched friends sending me messages about it, I see some of my denominational supervisors writing about it, and I overhear colleagues talk about it at meetings. Thus it’s hard to argue that RHE is certainly an impressive trend in the progressive Christian blogosphere.  The problem is, her prescription for bringing millennials back to the church is at least 30 years old.  Robert Webber made this case just a couple of years after I was born.  The idea for which Evans is being lauded is literally as old as the millennials she intends to draw back.

RHE’s re-warmed argument runs as such:

“In response, many churches have sought to lure millennials back by focusing on style points: cooler bands, hipper worship, edgier programming, impressive technology. Yet while these aren’t inherently bad ideas and might in some cases be effective, they are not the key to drawing millennials back to God in a lasting and meaningful way. Young people don’t simply want a better show. And trying to be cool might be making things worse.”

If young people don’t “simply want a better a better show,” don’t tell that to the fastest-growing megachurch in my state.  I may find the show aesthetically offensive, the methods manipulative, and the content lacking, but that doesn’t mean many churches have not found this prescription “successful.”  If it is now cliché to the sophisticated palate of RHE, it is only because this formula has been useful in many places and for many years.  Time will tell if young adults are now growing wise to the marketing.  In my own small town, the churches that are attracting millennials the fastest are still following the above formula that Evans finds passé.

That doesn’t mean she’s totally wrong, though.  What attracted RHE to sacramental Christianity includes many of the reasons I love and practice it:

“What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.”

The problem is that Evans’ solution is in danger of underwriting “the form of godliness without the power.” (2 Tim. 3:5) I would certainly agree that the aesthetics of Holy Communion or Ash Wednesday are far more powerful than a coffee bar or strobe lights.  But if these wonderful practices are divorced from their doctrinal content, they are little more than nice rituals and not a means of grace.

Which brings us to RHE’s solution: The Episcopal Church.  To be blunt, if the Episcopalians were drawing in millennials the way RHE’s analysis suggests they should be, then statistically TEC would not be dying out faster than Blockbuster. Evans does suggest one need not be a part of a denomination that is historically sacramental, but this is only to double down on the problem: going through the motions of ritual without the ecclesiology or doctrinal commitments which underlie them creates just another hip activity to do on Sunday.

Communion elements in stained glass from an Ohio parish, courtesy Nheyob via Wikimedia Commons.
Communion elements in stained glass from an Ohio parish, courtesy Nheyob via Wikimedia Commons.

Holy Communion serves as an example of why form and content must be in harmony. To name just three potential problems related to the Eucharist: absent (1) a sacramental theology capable of claiming that what happens at the table is something more than a snack, or (2) a Christology capable of handling the theological freight of the Great Thanksgiving, or  (3) a soteriology that recognizes the need to repent for sins of omission and sins of commission, this highest point of Christian worship becomes dead ritual, an aesthetic experience that pleases but does not transform.*

I don’t pretend to know what millennials want (even though I am one) because I don’t believe I can read a few polls, talk to my friends, and thereby understand everyone in my generation.  That said, I am quite sure that we should not design churches to fit the fancies of the same people who have made The Real World a successful franchise and the Kardashians famous.  Thus the appeal of the ancient forms of worship not designed by me or for me, an appeal which I gladly confess.

But the ancient forms demand substance to match the style.  I don’t know what millennials want, but what (read: Who) millennials need is the God revealed in the Bible and confessed in the creeds and liturgies of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.  Mainline churches like TEC and my own United Methodist Church reflect that apostolic teaching and practice on paper, but on the ground our pastors and other leaders too often compromise core Trinitarian and Christological confessions which frame Christian life and practice.  (The story of two “bishops,” Sprague and Spong, is enough evidence to suffice here.)  When this happens, we are trying to plant heirloom roses in poisoned soil.

As much as anyone else, I want millennials (indeed, all people) to know fellowship with the Three-One God and life in the Body of Christ.   With the ancient church and the Reformers, I believe the sacraments are among the most wonderful gifts of God.  This remains the case whether a critical mass of millennials find them “relevant” or not.  Of course, catechesis (teaching) about Christian worship in general and the sacraments in particular is necessary to help any new Christians connect with liturgical practice, as with anything not immediately self-evident.

But let’s not forget that form needs power; Webber, who originated Evans’ thesis, was very aware of the necessity to maintain the Christian story.  The practices of Christian liturgy without the doctrinal and ethical content which undergird them are little more than mansions built on sand.  Ritual without substance won’t do anyone – millennial or otherwise – any good at all.

P.S. The impressive growth of the ACNA – not all of which can be attributed to schism and sheep stealing, but at least in part to church planting and doctrinal fidelity – serves as a useful foil to TEC’s statistics and an example of what happens when the ancient and apostolic form meets the content for which it was intended.

*This assumes, of course, a heart transformed by the love of God and a life of prayer, service, mercy, and justice. Doctrine and ethics, faith and practice, go together – they do not compete with each other.

Recovering Our Mother Tongue

Peruvian mother with child, courtesy Flicker via Ian Riley.
Peruvian mother with child, courtesy Flicker via Ian Riley.

“…have ye now merely heard that God is Almighty? But ye begin to have him for your father, when you have been born by the church as your Mother.”

-St. Augustine

Languages are best learned through immersion.  One cannot learn French by reading an English translation of a Dumas novel – one needs to hear the French, speak it, let it get inside.  Doctrine functions quite similarly to language, if George Lindbeck is to be believed.  Thus he argues that, from a cultural-linguistic perspective, Christian doctrines function much like “communally authoritative rules of discourse, attitude, and action.” (1)

Reflecting on the use of creeds in worship, from the ancient church to today, Geoffrey Wainwright argues they “are binding in so far as they summarize in words the primal revelation of God in Jesus Christ…and so enable the believer to declare his own life-commitment to that same God in the present.” (2)  By the words of the traditional creeds, we learn the language of faith, the language of that sacred and profane body of persons that is somehow called the Body of Christ.  Through the creeds and other forms of doctrinal instruction (in particular, if they are of sufficient quality, our hymns), we learn to speak the truth which was “preached to [us], which [we] received and on which [we] have taken [our] stand” in and through the ministry, witness, service, and worship of the church. (1 Cor. 15:1, NIV)

St. Augustine goes so far as to recommend reciting the Apostle’s Creed multiple times per day in his homily to catechumans (who would recite the Creed at baptism):

“Receive, my children, the Rule of Faith, which is called the Symbol (or Creed ). And when you have received it, write it in your heart, and be daily saying it to yourselves; before ye sleep, before ye go forth, arm you with your Creed…These words which you have heard are in the Divine Scriptures scattered up and down: but thence gathered and reduced into one, that the memory of slow persons might not be distressed; that every person may be able to say, able to hold, what he believes. For have ye now merely heard that God is Almighty? But ye begin to have him for your father, when you have been born by the church as your Mother.”

Only in the language bequeathed from our Mother, the church, is right praise (“orthodoxy”) possible.  This language is learned chiefly by our full, active, and conscious participation in the liturgy, through creed and hymn, through homily and response, through sacrament, icon, footwashing, and stained glass.  Without worship that forms us in the language of God’s self-revelation in Christ, we are left mute to proclaim and live (for language forms lives, not merely words) the One who is alone and fully True, Good, and Beautiful.

“How can we sing God’s song in a foreign land?” asked the Psalmist. (137:4)

We cannot, at least not without much formation, practice, immersion.  And increasingly, we Western Christians are realizing that North America and Europe are foreign lands.  Thus for the sake of Christian mission, belief, and life, we need to recover our Mother Tongue.

1. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (Philadelphia: Westminster Press 1984), 18.
2. Wainwright, Doxology (New York: Oxford 1980), 192.

Secular Worship

What does it mean for Christian worship to descend into mere secularism? According to Fr. Alexander Schmemann, the secularist mindset has an inability to appreciate symbol.  This failure leads to the use of symbols as only teaching tools, a utilitarian move that ultimately leads to the destruction of Christian symbols themselves and Christian worship as a whole.  This is particularly true when one looks at the misuse, abuse, or poor celebration of the sacrament par excellence, the Eucharist:

But the whole point here is that the secularist is constitutionally unable to see in symbols anything but ‘audio-visual aids’ for communicating ideas.  Last winter a group of students and teachers of a well-known seminary spent a semester “working” on a “liturgy” centered the following “themes”: the S.S.T., ecology, and the flood in Pakistan.  No doubt they “meant well.” It is their presuppositions which are wrong: that the traditional worship can have no “relevance” to these themes and has nothing to reveal about them, and that unless a “theme” is somehow clearly spelled out in the liturgy, or made into its “focus,” it is obviously outside the spiritual reach of liturgical experience. The secularist is very fond today of terms such as “symbolism,” “sacrament,” “transformation,” “celebration,” and of the entire panoply of cultic terminology. What he does not realize, however, is that the use he makes of them reveals, in fact, the death of symbols and the decomposition of the sacrament.  And he does not realize this because in his rejection of the world’s and man’s sacramentality he is reduced to viewing symbols as indeed mere illustrations of ideas and concepts, which they emphatically are not.

It seems to me that the  elephant in the room here is the extreme anti-Catholic wing of Reformation, represented by folks like Zwingli for whom that which church throughout time and space has called sacraments are reduced, instead, to mere “symbols.”  As a professor of mine once said, “If they are just symbols, then the hell with them!”  Point being, there is no reason to make the entrance to the church (baptism) and the meal that constitutes the church and continually feeds us of God’s grace (Eucharist) such central acts of Christian worship if they are only “symbolic.” For there are other symbols.  There are simpler symbols, more relevant, more accessible, more modern and easier to market.  Schmemann concludes this section with the following:

To anyone who has had, be it only once, the true experience of worship, all this is revealed immediately as the ersatz that it is.  He knows that the secularist’s worship of relevance is simply incompatible with the true relevance of worship.  And it is here, in this miserable liturgical failure, whose appalling results we are only beginning to see, that secularism reveals its ultimate religious emptiness and, I will not hesitate to say, its utterly un-Christian essence. (For the Life of the World, 125-126, emphasis added.)

 

Note: This post was edited to reflect a corrected understanding of Zwingli within the history of the Reformation.  I had incorrectly associated him with the Radical Reformation, while he was clearly in the reformed camp.  I only meant to associate him with the anti-sacramental edge – he did go further away from Rome on the Eucharist than did Luther, Calvin, and the Anglicans  – but I had listed him in the wrong tribe.  Thanks to Shaun Brown for the correction.